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Letter to Secretary Gates: Extremists Continue to Infiltrate Military

SPLC President Richard Cohen sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates urging him to adopt a zero-tolerance policy against racist extremists in the military

SPLC President Richard Cohen sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates urging him to adopt a zero-tolerance policy against racist extremists in the military

November 26, 2008

Robert Gates

Secretary of Defense

1000 Defense Pentagon

Washington, DC 20301-1000

Dear Mr. Gates:

Two years ago, we alerted Secretary Rumsfeld to evidence that racial extremists were serving in the armed forces, and we asked him to adopt a stern zero-tolerance policy against extremist activity in the military. Secretary Rumsfeld, through Under Secretary Chu, claimed that the armed forces already had such a policy and refused to take further action. Because the evidence that right-wing extremists are infiltrating the military continues to mount, we urge you to revisit the issue.

We have been monitoring the activities of racist extremists since 1981. In 1986, we wrote Secretary Weinberger and presented evidence that United States Marines were participating in Klan paramilitary activities. We urged him to prohibit all military personnel from being members of or participating in the activities of groups like the Klan.

Secretary Weinberger responded forcefully. "Military personnel," he stated in a directive, "must reject participation in white supremacy, neo-Nazi and other such groups which espouse or attempt to create overt discrimination. Active participation, including public demonstrations, recruiting and training members, and organizing or leading such organizations is utterly incompatible with military service."

Unfortunately, Secretary Weinberger's directive proved to be inadequate. Many military commanders interpreted it to prohibit only egregious forms of hate group activity, not mere memberships in such groups or activities like displaying hate group symbols or circulating extremist literature. The problem with the directive vividly came to light in December 1995 when neo-Nazi paratroopers with the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg gunned down a black couple in a ritualistic, racially motivated slaying. A subsequent investigation revealed that military leaders at Fort Bragg had overlooked numerous indications that a subculture of violent, neo-Nazi skinheads existed at the base.

Shocked by the events at Fort Bragg and the revelations that Tim McVeigh had distributed racist literature while in the service, the Army formed a task force and the House Armed Services Committee held hearings on extremism in the military in 1996. At those hearings, we testified that any type of involvement with extremist groups should disqualify someone from military service. Following the hearings and task force investigation, the Department of Defense amended its regulations to more clearly define the nature of prohibited extremist activities. Secretary Perry made it clear that the regulations were intended to leave "no room for racist and extremist activities in the military."

Despite Secretary Perry's intentions, the amended regulations did not solve the problem. In 2006, we issued a report demonstrating that members of neo-Nazi and other extremist groups continued to infiltrate the ranks of the armed forces. We presented specific examples of servicemen who were allowed to continue in the military even after their white supremacist activities were exposed. Military investigators with whom we spoke attributed the problem to the intense pressure on the military to maintain force levels while the country was at war and to the ambiguity of the existing regulations against extremist activity.

Since we issued our 2006 report, the problem may have worsened. According to a July 7, 2008, FBI study, "Sensitive and reliable source reporting indicates supremacist leaders are encouraging followers who lack documented histories of neo-Nazi activity and overt racist insignia such as tattoos to infiltrate the military as 'ghost skins,' in order to recruit and receive training for the benefit of the extremist movement." Other evidence of the continuing problem of white supremacists in the military is detailed in the attached article that we are releasing on December 2.

After the release of our 2006 report, forty members of the House of Representatives sponsored a resolution urging your predecessor "to immediately institute a zero-tolerance policy with regard to racial and ethnic extremism in the military." They noted that extremists in the military "pose a major domestic security threat to the Nation and undermine the cohesiveness of its fighting force." Although there may never be a fail-safe system that prevents extremists from infiltrating the military, we believe that a thorough review of the existing safeguards is long overdue. As Senator Shelby emphasized in a letter to Secretary Rumsfeld, "Of all institutions in our society, the U.S. military is the absolute last place extremists can be permitted to exist." The armed forces should enact and enforce an unambiguous zero-tolerance policy against extremists in the military.

Thank you for your consideration of this very serious issue.

Sincerely yours,

J. Richard Cohen